TALKING TO MEDIA: Freedom of Speech, the Press, and to Marry

Guest Blogger: Andrea Shorter

The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
-- Finley Peter Dunne aka Mr. Dooley

And Marriage For All (AM4A) is a public education campaign that works to reach out to and educate African American communities in Northern California on the importance of the freedom to marry for same sex couples. A collaborative project of two civil and human rights organizations, And Castro for All and the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition, AM4A also works with allies like GLAAD to help couples, parents and family members of same sex couples, clergy, friends, neighbors, and co-workers share their stories through press and media in pursuit of marriage equality.

The portrayal of LGBT people in mainstream media has often been complicated. Most often least of all comforting to an often afflicted group.

While media portraits and press accounts of same gender loving people and their relationships have thankfully evolved in recent times, telling our stories in a way that more accurately reflects the truer diversity, complexities and aspirations of our day to day lives, communities and families can seem daunting and challenging for some. Telling our stories helps to push past stereotypes, sensationalized portraits or misperceptions about what it means to be engaged in loving, committed same sex relationships.

The marriage between the freedom of speech, the press, and marriage equality can prove a most engaging affair for anyone interested in being heard.

Sharing our stories is essential to any liberation movement. As we celebrate African American history month, we are especially reminded of this fundamental truth. Without exception, this also applies to the pursuit of civil marriage and marriage equality.

With the scope of press and media outlets rapidly expanding beyond newsprint, publications, television, and radio and into numerous internet media including independent blogs, posting boards such as You Tube, and numerous social networks such as Facebook allows for greater and creative opportunities to directly write, video, or even rap (yes, rap) to a potentially large audience about the right to marry. Clearly, this accessibility is quickly revolutionizing the ways in which we relate to and interact with media:

we are no longer mostly passive consumers but can be empowered creators of media.

After all, in today’s media rich environment – for better or worse -- anyone can produce and generate ones own media and mobilize critical mass from the click of a button or flick of a finger across the acrylic touch sensitive screen of their favorite wireless PDA. Our individual and collective abilities to impact and frame the debate on marriage equality is remarkable.

Telling Your Story

Whether you are in a loving, committed relationship, seeking a loving, committed relationship, the parent, sister, brother, auntie, uncle, neighbor, co-worker, or friend of an LGBT person or same sex couple, telling your story is one of the most supportive and empowering acts towards achieving equality for all.

In addition to hosting forums, panel discussions at churches, providing communications and media trainings to couples, supportive family, and organizers, we also sponsored creative ways in which to engage people in the dialogue and to tell their stories such as hosting blogging parties and creating a web community.

And, not to worry: you don’t have to write a paper back novel or sociology thesis to tell your story. Short, sweet and simple stories or statements of just a few words, one or two sentences, or one paragraph can have a great impact. In fact, those are often the most memorable and powerful.

Some of my favorite blog entries to AM4A and other outlets – all of which could easily be simple letters to the editor:

Everyone should have the same opportunity to marry whomever he or she wants. This is America!

Everyone should get to decide whom they love. The Government’s job is to treat people equally.
- Dania

I support marriage equality for all because I love my niece and her partner, and they deserve all the same rights as anybody else. They work hard, they pay their taxes, they vote. They love each other. We love them.

Setting the Record Straight (as it were)

As a campaign primarily dedicated to advancing the dialogue about marriage equality among African Americans, AM4A became particularly engaged in the commentary about the role of media in the aftermath of the recent passage of a statewide initiative to take away the civil rights of same sex couples to marry in California.

The early but widely reported accounts of African Americans having allegedly voted – 70% -- in favor of denying same sex couples the right to marry caused a national stir and a statewide firestorm that became an overnight focal point of curiosity, confusion, and blame for the loss of the constitutional right to marry. Months before a single Californian cast a vote, speculation about the impact of the Black vote on LGBT right to marry during the heaviest Black voter turnout in history for the first Black President of the United States was beginning to shape the narrative that eventually played out following a spectacular, historical election night.

In what became the makings of a perfect media storm, AM4A was approached by media regarding the African American voters response to the freedom to marry. As people of color who are also LGBT, we found ourselves in a critical space for challenging press reports in a rare historical moment.

We sought to stay on point that many African Americans value marriage equality as a civil right. Additionally, we worked to reframe the debate by pointing out what the media were failing to report:

- The African American community is not a monolithic experience. Many African Americans across the state and nation were very disappointed, frustrated, and angered at the outcome of the vote to take away same sex couples right to marry and its impact on their family members, friends, and fellow citizens.

- Numerous Black clergy, elected officials, and allied organizations such as the CA NAACP stood firmly for the civil rights of same sex marriage couples to marry, and waged to defeat what the then President-elect described as a “divisive and unjust proposition.”

- Homophobia in the African American community is not disproportionately greater than any other racialized community.

- Exit polls are not conclusive, and certainly not gospel truth. We should resist the use of exit polls to create the idea of a wedge or division between African Americans and LGBT people.

- Being Black or LGBT are not wholly antithetical experiences: there are Black LGBT people such as myself who are deeply committed to continuing the fight for civil and human rights in the legacy of champions like Bayard Rustin.

Even with the recent release of research by David Binder and Associates, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, that finds that Blacks voted between 56-58% for the proposition — comparatively proportionate to other demographics voting in favor of the propositions passage, i.e., Latinos — reports continue to refer to the 70% figure as fact.

Towards the end of telling our stories, AM4A will continue to set the record straight (as it were), help others to tell theirs, and further reach out and educate our diverse communities about the importance of marriage for all.

After all, if we don’t tell our stories, who will?

Andrea Shorter is the Director of And Marriage For All, a San Francisco-based public campaign building coalitions between African American and LGBT communities.